Life Is Not a Utilitarian Calculation

Attain the Good You Will Not Attain, part 1

In 1990, I was in a graduate student at the University of Virginia, taking an ethics seminar taught by Cora Diamond. We were considering various angles of critique of utilitarianism when Professor Diamond passed out photocopies of a poem by Zbigniew Herbert: "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito." Certainly there are times in life when working for a desired outcome is well and good. But the utilitarian claim that calculating likelihood of good outcomes is the whole of the ethical life, I cannot buy -- and "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito" distills why.

I took that photocopy of Herbert's poem home and pasted it on the side of my metal filing cabinet. Ten years and several moves later, the poem, still affixed to that filing cabinet, was spotted by a then-new acquaintance of mine, LoraKim Joyner. We read it together and found ourselves crying. If I wasn't already in love with that woman, I was then.

Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was born in 1924. He was a month shy of his 15th birthday when the Nazi tanks rolled into Poland in 1939 September, beginning a six-year period of occupation of his homeland. The young Herbert continued his studies in secret classes organized by the Polish Underground and in time became a member of the Polish resistance movement.

In 1974, Herbert published Mr. Cogito, a collection of 40 poems. The titles of the book's poems almost all reference Herbert's everyman, Mr. Cogito. The book's last poem is "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito." ("Przesłanie Pana Cogito," also sometimes translated as "The Message of Mr Cogito.") Whether the titular envoy is bringing a message to or from Mr. Cogito is not clear. But the message reminds us that life is not a utilitarian calculation.

As I read the poem, I imagine what it must have been like to have been in the Polish resistance. It would demand courage that could not have relied on hope, for realistically the resistance had no hope. In that world, at that time, it was evident that evil had won and would continue.

Had members of the resistance acknowledged any moral relevance to utilitarian calculation, they could not have given their hearts and their lives as they did to the task by which they chose to be defined -- for all reasonable evidence pointed to the futility of that task. A different moral understanding was necessary. Resistance, under such circumstances, is not about winning, not about accomplishing results. It's about the requirements of decency; about what, in that situation, a decent life, however brief, would be.

Put out of your mind the idea that you might be doing any good, Herbert tells us. To join the resistance is to commit each day to activities that could easily make any hour your last, and to abandon hope that any good could come of this. You join, if you do, because you are called to be a resistor rather than a collaborator. You do it to be who you are -- until they catch and kill you, as they surely will.

It’s about being a worthy person, not about getting anything done. It's about the life that leads to death, but also about the death that opens a possibility for genuine and fearless life.
"The Envoy of Mr. Cogito"
By Zbigniew Herbert, translated by Bogdana Carpenter

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards — they will win
they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror
repeat: I was called — weren’t there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant — when the light on the mountains gives the sign — arise and go
as long as blood turns your dark star in the breast

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Attain the Good You Will Not Attain"
See also
Part 2: No Desire for the Fruits of Your Action
Part 3: Doing Without Hope
And see:
Rev. LoraKim Joyner, "Conservation: Attaining the Good You Will Not Attain"

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